President Dogbert

Mission statements and vision statements were all the rage a few years ago. Maybe they still are. (It's good to be retired.) For those of you lucky enough to avoid such Dilbertesque exercises, it went roughly like this: Your boss or your boss's boss wanted each work group to come up with its own mission statement -- a statement that summarizes what you do. And "what you do" must go above the commonplace; your mission statement should get to the essence of your reason for being (at work). Also, your bosses did not want to impose a mission on you; you were supposed to see it yourself, as a group working together.

I was originally in favor of the concept of mission statements. It is important to know what you are really doing and why it is important. We should be purpose-driven and not just go through the motions or do daily tasks mindlessly.

The trouble usually came from the group meetings. Mission statements resulting from group meetings seemed to have two features in common:

  • (1) We are saving the world.
  • (2) We don't seem to do anything specific; the statement could apply as well to a group designing military fighter jets for Boeing as to one assembling toasters for Target.
I recall a typical mission statement as going something like this:

To enhance value for our stakeholders, in partnership with our suppliers and customers, by delivering world-class quality products and services, by empowering our teammates in an environment of mutual respect and diversity, and by fostering sustainable industry-community relationships.

I came to believe we could randomly mix and match phrases using key words like "enhance," "value," "world-class," "quality," "stakeholders," etc. and do just as swell a job. (As it turns out, there are now random mission statement generators online. At one time, the Dilbert website had its own.)

Mission statements don't have to be that way. In fact, good mission statements clarify rather than obfuscate. According to my wife, the U.S. Marine Corps once had a mission statement that simply said, "Defeat the enemy on the field of battle."

That kind of clears it up, doesn't it? Maybe you'd like the Marines to better reflect the diversity of the American population. Or maybe you'd like the Marines to provide great educational opportunities for today's young men and women. But this mission statement clears up a lot of confusion. For any given proposal, the only question that needs to be answered is, Does it help the Marines defeat the enemy on the field of battle? If the answer is no, then the Marines have no use for it.

It is that kind of clarity that made me an early advocate for mission statements. But apparently, it is that kind of clarity that makes it so hard for a group to come up with a good one. Some member of the group is bound to think there is something else important to include. Then others add their favorite theories. And before you know it, the mission statement is so general that it covers everyone's pet causes and therefore loses all meaning. It becomes a useless statement to "go forth and do good."

I attributed such flabby, flaccid mission statements to the entropy of meeting dynamics. But I also suspect something more nefarious is afoot: Some people simply can't stand clarity.

...Which brings me to President Obama. I have two examples of poor mission statements: Afghanistan and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

At one time, we had a pretty clear mission statement for Afghanistan. According to The Washington Post, it fit neatly on a viewgraph.

Defeat the Taliban. Secure the population.

But as the Post reported, such clarity caused consternation within the Obama administration. So they changed it. Here is the new mission for the International Security Assistance Force, according to the Pentagon.

ISAF, in partnership with the Afghan Government, conducts population-centric COIN operations, enables an expanded and effective ANSF, and supports improved governance and development in order to protect the Afghan people and provide a secure environment for sustainable stability.

Entropy set in. Or someone high up didn't care for clarity. Or maybe someone high up just couldn't think clearly. But if you think you could go forth and do something to execute that mission statement, you are a better, or more foolish, man than I am.

For a short spell, General McChrystal was a better or more foolish man than I. I think his real mistake was signing onto that nonsensical mission statement in the first place. It gives me little reassurance to know that his replacement, General Petraeus, must have signed onto that same mission statement.

I will believe we have a prayer in Afghanistan when I see a mission statement that makes sense to soldiers rather than bureaucrats, academics, and postmodernists.

Imagine you have a son in Afghanistan. In one case, he and his buddies are told their mission is to "defeat the Taliban." In the second case, they are told they will "in partnership with the Afghan government, conduct population-centric operations, enable ANSF, support governance, yadda yadda, for sustainable stability."

In which case would you think your son and his superiors would know what to do? In which case would you feel better about the safety of your son and the rightness of his mission? Now imagine things went badly, and you were visiting his grave marker. Would you rather see "Killed in action while defeating the Taliban" or "Killed while conducting operations and enhancing Afghan forces for sustainable stability" engraved on his tombstone?

To be blunt, change that mission statement or bring them home.

And now for my second example: NASA. Charles Bolden, Obama's new head of NASA, was recently interviewed by Al Jazeera. What bothered me in his interview was not what he said himself, but what he said Obama "charged" him with:

When I became the NASA administrator, or before I became the NASA administrator, he charged me with three things.  One was he wanted me to help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math.  He wanted me to expand our international relationships.  And third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math and engineering.

Set aside whatever you are thinking now about making Muslim nations feel good. If this was the new NASA administrator's "mission," how is it discernible from, say, a mission that could be assigned to the Secretary of Education? Couldn't General Bolden accomplish his mission without even having to put anything or any person into space ever again?

This "mission" has the earmarks of the bad mission statements I recall from my tenure as a cubicle-dweller: It is a "save the world" (and its children and Muslims) mission, and it has nothing specific to do with NASA itself. It could apply equally to the Dept. of Education, the Dept. of Energy, or the Dept. of Agriculture.

Liberals like to talk of collaboration instead of competition. They talk of teamwork over individualism. But they seem to forget how real teams work. Think of a baseball team. Any one player's mission is not to win the game himself; it is to play his position well, hit well, and run well. The right-fielder does not catch or throw pitches. When a player is at the plate, he's the only one the pitcher is throwing to. Yes, players must work together at times, but even then their roles are separate and clearly understood.

The baseball team works as a team because each player has the equivalent of a well-understood mission statement. The clarity that comes with well-crafted individual assignments is what makes teams work. When a football player is looking at a blackboard of x's and o's, he knows which x or o he is.

How well would your little-leaguer play baseball if his coach simply told him and eight other kids to go out onto the field and play good ball?

What would be a nightmare of a little-league coach is the nightmare we now have in the White House. Go forth and do good. Relate to the Muslims. Inspire the kids. Plug the damn hole. Or I'll kick your ass.

Obama is often called gifted. I would say his gift is talking as if he is being crystal clear ("let me be clear") when he is actually being anything but. If you think he is clear, tell me again when we plan to leave Afghanistan or what we are really doing there. Tell me again what he is doing to stop the oil in the Gulf and clean up its mess. Tell me again what is in any of the 1,000-plus pages of any of the major pieces of legislation he signed or wants to sign: his stimulus, health care reform, Cap & Trade.

The Democrats are not even bothering to write a budget this year. If they did, we could calculate the deficit and determine government priorities. Too damn much clarity.

If you want "to help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math," try showing them that objectivity matters. "Science, math and engineering" are endeavors where not every opinion and cultural behavior is equally valid. Hypothesized scientific relationships have to square with physical observations. Math must follow rigid, unforgiving logic, with right answers. Engineers must design bridges that don't fall down.

Why would any kid care about such things when the celebrated "most gifted President in several generations" can't say what the troops in Afghanistan are doing, when they will come home, or that our Space Administration will do anything involving space anymore?

Let me be clear. Would you rather be the guy who designs an oil well that floats a mile above the ocean floor and drills three miles below it, or the guy who kicks that guy's ass to the cheers of an adoring crowd when something goes wrong with it?

Failure is an option -- for some of us.

Randall Hoven is the creator of Graph of the Day. He can be contacted at or via his website,